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Micro-RNA research proves Rich's 1961 'suggestion'

Related: Scientists celebrate 50 years since key RNA discovery

In 1961 Alexander Rich made a prophetic suggestion that is just now coming to fruition.

In a book chapter published in 1961, Rich had proposed "an interesting possibility," that a complementary second strand of RNA "may be part of the control apparatus for turning on or off the synthesis of ... proteins. One might imagine that one RNA strand is continually used in protein synthesis, while the other strand is used to control the rate" at which the "sense" strand works.

However, in the 1950s and 1960s the rudder of biological research "was set in one direction," generally away from enthusiasm for RNA research. Instead, DNA seemed more important and got most of the research attention.

At the time, however, a strong consensus had developed that only one RNA strand is made, and that if a complementary strand is made at all, it's probably useless and gets rapidly disposed of.

Further, protein production was believed to be regulated by specialized proteins that govern the process.

So these small RNAs were ignored as research moved on, Rich said, because in science "there is a herd instinct. And the net effect is that some discoveries were not made." In fact, for many years RNA seemed unexciting, a relatively mundane DNA-copying molecule.

But ignoring RNA and its hidden talents was a mistake. Major RNA-based discoveries are now being made, and the impact is huge. Very recently biologists found that unusually small bits of RNA--micro-RNAs--do indeed exist in cells and represent an important and powerful mechanism for gene control using complementary pairing, as Rich had suggested.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on January 10, 2007 (download PDF).

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